Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
US Rating: PG – For Some Thematic Material And Disturbing Images
Film Length: 91 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 – Enhanced for Widescreen TVs
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround Sound
Release Date: November 3, 2009
Review Date: November 4, 2009
The Film: 4.5 out of 5
Before I get into Food, Inc, let me establish some context for how I went in to watching this film. I shop for my food, like most American’s, at an array of stores. I frequent Wal Mart as much as Harris Teeter (a dominant grocery chain in North Carolina), and I balance my choices, weighing taste, nutritional value, and costs, to build a kitchen of foods that suit my palette and lifestyle. Well, that was true of me two years ago. Today, I still go to Wal Mart, Harris Teeter and the like, but I have added into the mix a few other locations, such as Whole Foods and Earth Fare. Why? Well, I became more aware of what was actually in the food I bought. I didn’t go to a seminar and get brainwashed; I didn’t read a book or watch a documentary that cautioned me against the dangers of certain additives and ingredients – nope, I simply began reading labels. Being a diabetic for years, I have always checked the sugar and carbohydrate count of the foods that I buy, but until a couple of years ago, the rest of the ingredients didn’t matter as much to me. But one day, I became curious as to what some of the multitude of unpronounceable ingredients actually were. It may have started when I was told about the sweetener I was using for my cups of evening tea. But once I started reading, I became increasingly more curious, and more concerned, with what was in the foods I was buying. The disconcerting information adorning the labels on the food I bought changed my purchasing habits. I looked for food that did not have sugar or high fructose corn syrup included; I upped purchasing the foods that were categorized as Organic, and more. That is the starting point from which I entered watching Food, Inc for the first time. And, despite what I already knew – I was floored by what I did not.
Food, Inc is perhaps the most damming observational documentation of the state of the American Food Industrial Complex committed to film. While warning shots were surely felt across the bow of American food habits from 2004’s Super Size Me, a comprehensive linking of cause and effect within the system, between the collapsing and concentration of conglomerate power, and the startling statistics regarding food safety, variety, and ingredient has never, to my knowledge, been so potently coalesced. The essence of the film is two questions: 1) Do you know where your food comes from? and 2) Do you know why you should care? From that core pursuit is revealed a stinging indictment of the food industry, and the governmental department charged with guaranteeing the safety of their product (the FDA). But Food, Inc does not stray into an unproductive litany of assaults levied against the powerful in an attempt to rally viewers from disdain to demonstration. It remains throughout a casual, patient examination of little known food manufacturing practices and the distillation of the American farming way of life into silos of corporate owned, industrialized, and engineered magnates, and unfolds over a brisk, but well paced 90 minutes. The documentary succeeds in pointing, but not wagging the finger of caution and calamity at the practitioners of the corporate industry of food.
The film does levy some serious charges, including a deliberate obfuscation of the origin of our food, allegations of political-corporate collusion to continue farm subsidies enabling the overproduction of grain which in turn feeds the machine of ‘productionalized’ food, and claims that irresponsible food safety practices and the manipulation of food at the genetic level are causing unintended consequences. And it is the additional theme of ‘unintended consequences’ that provides Food, Inc with its balance. While Director/Producer Robert Kenner carefully lays out a serious case against a number of parties, including: the food industry, with startling stories of the power and influence of the top meat companies (which control vastly more than they did even a few decades ago), corn’s almost ubiquitous use in foods that line the supermarket shelves, and the consequence of poor food safety (Kevin’s story). Kenner does not betray the promise (getting to the answer of the two core questions) of his documentary. He does not shy away from the scientific and technological marvel at play in the food industry. The capacity for humanity to derive “faster, fatter, bigger, better” processes to deliver product to our supermarket and meet the availability and cost demands of the consumer. The film recognizes that, with a few exceptions, the industry as it exists today was not the result of nefarious design, but rather an organic (pardon the pun) growth of an industry seeking to reduce costs, maintain consistency, and grow operations – a chain of events triggered, it posits, from the birth of fast food by the McDonald’s brothers.
Food, Inc presents some images that are shocking – brutal treatment of hogs compressed at a hog farm, chickens pumped so full of growth hormones that they cannot stand, bovines mishandled by forklifts, etc – but the greater shocks come from the data. Consider – almost 30% of land in the US is dedicated to growing corn, slaughterhouses in the U.S. that once numbered in the thousands, are down to just 13, the number of food inspections conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is down to just a fifth of what it once was, despite the increased demand on the facilities providing the food. Additionally, the film begins to lay a framework of association between the changes in the food industry, which it notes has changed more in the last 50 years than the preceding 10,000, and the explosion of obesity rates and strains on the state of American health overall. These links are more add-ons, echoes of impacts than focal points, which is wise for this documentary to acknowledge, but not try to examine more deeply. That, in and of itself, could comprise an entire documentary.
Food, Inc isn’t slickly produced or highly polished, which is fortunate. It retains a more palatable grass-roots feel, and earnestly interviews genuinely interesting characters with either a birds-eye, or ground-floor view of the industry. It slices itself into major categories for research and review, from Beef, to Corn, to Swine, and from various viewpoints within those categories. E Coli, to immigration, lawyers to labor, it appears the right stones are turned over to enable this discussion about where our food comes from, and why we should care.
It is important not to take any documentary as gospel on a subject. Truly discerning and healthily skeptical minds should be piqued by what they see and hear, but not swayed wholly, until due diligence, review, research, reasoning, and validation of information can be thoughtfully performed. I feel this is where Food, Inc is an unqualified success, and where other equally fascinating documentaries have fallen short. Food, Inc certainly has a point to make, and does not hide what it wants to accomplish, but there is breathing room to absorb, and question, what is presented. Should you see Food, Inc? Without a doubt. Should you believe everything? That is up to you, but this reviewer was shocked and appalled – and encouraged to dig deeper and learn more. Any documentary, to claim success, should hope to get that reaction from its audience. Highly Recommended.
The Video: 4 out of 5
Magnolia Home Entertainment presents Food, Inc on DVD with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio enhanced for widescreen televisions. The image is straightforward – almost exclusively natural lighting, and is presented cleanly. The opening of the film uses visual effects to set the tone of what unfolds, and the colors and image are enhanced in contrast and grain – but the rest of the film, which was shot with a Panasonic AG-HDX900 DVCPRO HD, is sharp throughout.
The Sound: 3.5 out of 5
Food, Inc comes with both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 audio track. I watched this with the 5.1 track engaged and was pleased. Scenes inside the slaughterhouses and other complexes provide for interesting audio, and interviewees in the center channel, and the minimalist score accompaniment, are appropriate for the experience. The audio is free of issues and levels are good.
The Extras: 3 out of 4
Deleted Scenes (37:42): Eight deleted scenes that carry stories of Smithfield employees (Smithfield is the world’s largest hog processing plant and is in my home state of NC), with more hidden camera footage, Stoneyfield Farm’s CEO and his ‘New Alchemy’ revolution, Joel Salatin – the energized Shenandoah farmer featured in the film, who maintains more traditional practices, and others. All fascinating, but if included in the film’s final cut would have changed its overall tenor.
Celebrity Public Service Announcements (7:15): PSA’s from Alyssa Milano, Martin Sheen, Kelley Preston, and others
Resources: A large list of web resources that support continued education on the food system, and support for finding healthier food choices.
ABC News Nightline “You Are What You Eat”: Food With Integrity (7:20): The original report broadcast on ABC’s perennial news magazine show is available here as somewhat of a journalistic validation of some of what Food, Inc covers.
“The Amazing Food Detective” and “Snacktown Smackdown”: Stay Active and Eat Healthy (3:05): From Kaiser Permanente, an educational cartoon hat attempts to make learning how to eat better fun.
Food, Inc: The Book: Text details about the companion book
Theatrical Trailer (2:12)
Also Available from Magnolia Home Entertainment: Additional trailers
As I reflect on the experience of Food, Inc, a part of me feels like I did after I first watched Steven Speilberg’s Jaws, except my irrational fear of going into the water (any water, even baths I’m embarrassed to say) has been replaced with a fear of going into the supermarket. I don’t fear that I will be eaten, but that I will find precious little that should eat myself. Food, Inc will leave you with a sense of unease about your food, about the choices and about your understanding of where it comes from, and what’s in it. That’s tough to chew and harder to swallow. But I think you’ll find that you will. Robert Kenner has created an excellent documentary, a fine meal of information and education, and one that should be followed up with good reading: Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma would be a good start.
Overall Score 4 out of 5